While flexible packaging plays an important role in keeping food fresher longer, it has long been difficult to recycle. Designing more recyclable flexible packaging from the start and determining a better end-of-life process for current materials is a vital step in reducing food waste.
Around one-third of global food production is wasted every year, along with the resources used to produce it. One way to cut waste? Flexible packaging, which can help keep food fresh longer and in more diverse conditions. These materials currently make up around 15 percent of the packaging industry and are growing more prevalent every year.
Although flexible packaging plays an important role in reducing food waste, it is also overlooked as a valued good — as flexible packaging materials have long been difficult to recycle. Ashley Leidolf — senior marketing manager of value chain engagement, sustainable packaging and advanced recycling at Dow — knows that limiting food waste is imperative in creating more sustainable food systems; but so is designing more recyclable flexible packaging from the start and determining a better end-of-life process for current materials.
After more than a decade spearheading sustainability initiatives for brands — including SunChips’ compostable bags, ultra-lightweight Gatorade bottles, McDonald’s recyclable packaging and more — Leidolf has ample experience helping food brands limit packaging waste while maintaining material performance and quality. In this Q&A, she shares why collaborative partnerships are essential for developing sustainable solutions to some of the food industry’s most pressing problems and for helping brands embrace innovative packaging.
What role does strategic collaboration play in your work at Dow?
AL: Our value chain engagement team is focused on collaboration on sustainable packaging throughout the value chain. We look at organizations beyond direct customer selling relationships — we’re focused downstream, including the whole value chain. We ask ourselves, “What are brand owners’, retailers’ and other partners’ unmet needs in sustainable packaging?” Then we try to connect the dots along the chain to meet those needs and collaborate with multiple parties to accelerate sustainable packaging developments.
We also represent Dow in many external industry organizations — for example, I serve on the Sustainable Packaging Coalition executive committee. We’re constantly reviewing how we can leverage different relationships — whether with brand owners, retailers, customers, industry organizations, designers, co-packers or academics — to accelerate sustainable packaging launches.
Essentially, my work involves a lot of thinking about how we can build relationships along the value chain to understand the needs of brand owners and retailers, then translate that back to Dow to help develop and launch improved packaging solutions.
You’ve been working in the field in various capacities for more than a decade. Where does your personal drive to keep doing this work come from?
AL: From a very young age, I have memories of my dad being super into recycling — back before plastic waste issues came into focus around the world.
I grew up in rural Indiana, where there was no curbside recycling (and still isn’t!). We had boxes in the garage for every different type of plastic, can, bottle and paper. And when I was in elementary school, my dad would even collect bags and take them to the grocery store to drop off for recycling. Now, a huge part of my job is working with brands to help their packaging qualify for store drop-off recycling.
I think my dad just had the sense of needing to do the right thing and take responsibility for what we were consuming. And if there was an option to help make something better, he wasn’t going to take the easy way out.
Recycling has gained some negative attention lately, as critics question its efficiency. How do you respond to this?
AL: I would say that recycling does work, and there are many real-world examples to show it. Recycled material is in high demand. But we still have a lot of work ahead of us to make recycling as impactful as it can be.
Consumer education is a big gap in the circular economy. People are confused about the rules of what they can recycle and where. We also still have a long way to go toward accessibility. The Recycling Partnership’s 2020 State of Curbside Recycling Report notes that only half of Americans have automatic access to curbside recycling, meaning recycling containers are provided to eligible households without community members needing to opt in or take other proactive steps. If consumers can’t easily recycle from their homes, how can we expect them to locate store drop-offs for harder-to-recycle materials? It’s not a matter of recycling not working — it's a lack of education and accessibility that limits recycling from having a greater impact.
Fortunately, many companies and industry groups, such as The Recycling Partnership and Closed Loop Partners, are investing heavily in infrastructure to change that. Dow also recently announced a partnership with WM to improve the collection of hard-to-recycle materials with the first major residential plastic film recycling program in the US.
Does that education gap exist on the business side with brands, as well?
AL: Many companies are simply unaware of their options for recyclable packaging. Often, we see brand owners working with packaging suppliers that only present them with one solution when multiple, viable options exist. But if brands don’t know about the possibilities, they can’t explore them.
Part of our work at Dow is spreading awareness about the latest advances and opportunities in this field that can help brands advance toward their sustainability goals. This is especially important with smaller brands that don’t have the packaging engineers that larger consumer-packaged goods companies have. They need to know that there are accessible technologies that can help them make packaging recyclable. Dow’s Pack Studios is designed to offer brands greater visibility and expertise into such technology. We invite brand owners to bring their challenges to us, so we can use our knowledge, tools and capabilities to help them design, test and develop more sustainable packaging that meets their needs.
Aside from awareness and accessibility, what other gaps must be filled to close the loop on a circular economy?
AL: One big challenge today is packaging for certain food products. Dow is currently involved in strategic collaborations with brands and industry groups looking specifically at meat and pet food packaging, two of the most challenging areas to design for recyclability.
Meat is difficult because it must be kept fresh. If it goes bad before consumers use it, the waste is significant. Food waste in general has a big carbon footprint; but when it comes from animals, you must also factor in the feeding, watering and processing of the animals that go to waste when food spoils.
Plastic is the best material for meeting all meat packaging criteria. It provides a moisture and oxygen barrier for freshness, has the toughness to withstand poking and prodding; and is clear, so consumers can see what they’re buying. We are developing a mono-material polyethylene film — which is much easier to recycle than traditional packaging that uses undesirable materials like PVC — that checks all these boxes for meat packaging.
Pet food is similar. As more companies are producing human-grade pet food, the packaging requirements are increasing in number and complexity to address with sustainable materials. Developing solutions takes a lot of collaboration for materials science companies like Dow to understand what exactly brands need from their packaging. That’s why we’re part of the Pet Sustainability Coalition — which connects us to around 50 pet brands, big and small. So far, we’ve successfully developed stand-up pouches with zippers for smaller pet food items, and we’re currently tackling the challenge of large food bags. How can we design a recyclable material that can hold 50 pounds of dog food and not split open when dropped? That’s one of our goals now.
What challenges do companies today face when aiming to reduce food packaging waste?
AL: Often, we find that companies are using packaging equipment that is designed to produce only non-recyclable packaging. There’s a bit of a learning curve and some operational efficiencies that must be adjusted when learning how to produce recyclable packaging. But it’s absolutely doable, and we’ve helped make this happen with some of our higher-profile launches — like the Bear Naked project. Companies just need to readjust the equipment a bit to those new films that have slightly different mechanical properties from the older, non-recyclable packaging.
Companies certainly have a lot to consider when looking for ways to create more sustainable products. What advice can you offer for the food brands unsure of where to start?
AL: Converting to sustainable packaging is a journey. Step one is to perform a baseline assessment of your current packaging. You need to answer questions like: What is your current volume of packaging consumption? What materials are you using that might be detrimental to recycling? What percentage of your current packaging is already recyclable/renewable/reusable? What are the non-negotiable performance criteria for your packaging, like shelf life and aesthetics? Having an up-to-date assessment of your current packaging portfolio is the first step.
Then, step two is to set packaging goals. Maybe that’s using more recycled content, eliminating unnecessary materials, making packaging more recyclable or reusable, etc. Once you’ve established objectives, you can move on to step three, which is to identify some of the easy-fix areas to start progressing toward those goals. You might be overpackaging, for example, and can lightweight or right-size your packaging to fit the product.
Step four is to join industry groups like the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. The SPC helps companies network with other organizations working toward similar goals, understand industry standards and definitions for sustainable packaging, and identify new opportunities to make progress.
Brands can also reach out to the Dow Pack Studios location nearest them.